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Getting a record label to pay attention to you as an up-and-coming musician is extremely difficult, no matter who you are or what kind of music you create.

You could be the hardest-rocking band, the sexiest pop chanteuse, or maybe the singer-songwriter with the most brutally honest lyrics today, but oftentimes even those things aren’t enough to get signed to a serious, beneficial record deal.

There are a lot of talented people out there, and most of them want to work with major labels, just as you do. With a bevy of potential stars out there just waiting for their moment, recording companies can be picky, and they are in a position to demand more these days. If you want to be considered, you need to make sure all your ducks are in a row, have some truly awesome tunes, and be the full package from the moment somebody notices you.

This isn’t to say you need to be 100% ready to become a chart-topper tomorrow, (because that’s what you need them for) but there is a lot you must have figured out and already working for you before many labels will consider you as a potential new addition to their roster.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t been offered a contract just yet, consider if you have all of the many things executives and talent scouts are searching for. So, those record labels looking for artists…what do they actually want?

Give Them Something They Can Sell

For most musicians, creating their art is about self-expression and working through potentially tough times. They make it out of a desire to inspire feelings of joy, or sadness, or any number of powerful emotions. That’s what it should be for the people actually crafting songs and albums, but for a record label, it’s about selling something. They may be in a creative industry, but record labels are still businesses, and money needs to be made.

This is something you will want to keep in mind as an artist, whether or not you’re looking to be signed, because you need to make money off of your creations one way or another. Many musicians hear this advice and they think it’s a suggestion to focus on nothing but what’s happening at the top of the charts and avoid anything brazen or different.

That simply isn’t true! The best musicians who have ever lived have found innovative ways to change styles and bring their genres to new places, but they did so in a way millions of people could get behind. Who says great art can’t be catchy, and it can’t be sold by artists who have a cool look to them as well?

This isn’t to say those working at record labels aren’t interested in promoting great music or pushing art, but those companies do need to keep the lights on, and the money for things like studio time and promotion needs to come from somewhere.

If you can show you have a fan base who will stick with you and take interest in everything you post, that’s something a smart executive would pay attention to.

What do record labels look for in an artist?

Hugh McIntyre

For decades, when record labels went looking for new names to sign, they sought out star quality and talent, as well as marketability. Now, they’re still interested in the same things, but they also want so much more.

As is mentioned in the rest of this article, record labels today are particularly intrigued by artists who already have a career. It’s a much safer bet on their part to sign a musician who has a large fan base, who knows who they are and has found their style and sound, whose social media is full of engaged followers, and who can supply numbers on streaming sites like Spotify and Apple Music that show that there’s already real interest.

Record labels are still open to lesser-known acts, ones who haven’t yet racked up millions of streams or accrued massive followings, but they need to have something incredibly special that no one else does. They must be certified, will-be stars, or perhaps they’ve crafted what will go on to easily become a radio smash, with the right promotion.

If you want to get signed by a major record label, try building your career first. They’ll be interested, and perhaps even come calling, when your success is undeniable.

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Have a Following

For a long time now, many a worthy, talented musician has had to sit by and watch painfully as record labels offer deals to people like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan simply because they are famous. It’s a shame these decisions need to be made from time to time, but again, this is a business, and those people have proven themselves to be ones who can sell a product, be it a movie, clothing, or, sometimes, music.

I’m not suggesting you need to be a certified celebrity hounded by the paparazzi before any label will even consider you, but if you’re not focusing a lot of your time and energy on social media, where followings are accrued these days, maybe take a look around and see how successful some of these influencers have become.

You can begin building a following online based on both your music and your personality, so don’t worry that it needs to only be one or the other, or that only the superficial matters. Many acts currently bubbling under have earned deals based on a mixture of their music and their obvious fan base.

On the other side of the business, plenty of successful artists have solidified connections with their biggest fans by allowing them into their world via platforms like Twitter and Instagram, where they are typically a little less inhibited, and not everything is as structured and polished as it may be in a photo shoot or a proper interview. Your following is really just your fan base.

Your online following doesn’t need to be massive, but dedication is valuable. If you can show you have a fan base who will stick with you and take interest in everything you post, that’s something a smart executive would pay attention to.

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Numbers aren’t everything…but they can definitely help you get a deal, as long as they are solid, believable, and meaningful.

Eye-catching numbers can come from anywhere, and it’s best to have a handful of them when you’re presenting your case to a record label. Perhaps you have an impressive number of followers on Facebook, or you can show your daily posts on Instagram always receive a consistently-high level of love from your fans.

If you have several songs up on platforms like Spotify or SoundCloud, show them play counts numbering in the hundreds of thousands or even in the millions. If you have receipts of some kind or confirmable information in regards to how many CDs you’ve sold or how many tickets you move at every show you play, that’s also worth showing.

If you only have large numbers connected to your social media accounts, but not associated with your music, that’s not a great sign, so think long and hard about how you present your data. I’ve personally seen many artists tout their Twitter following, but it seems like nobody is listening to their output, which leads me (and anybody else paying close attention) to believe something fishy is going on here.

Keep in mind if you and your team are going to start using terms like “star” or “influencer,” or if you’re going to call your latest song a “hit,” you need to have the numbers to back it up. There are few things more pretentious than seeing a completely unknown artist calling their just-dropped track a “hit” before anybody has listened to it. Don’t force the titles or the figures. Let it all build naturally and people will label it appropriately.

Your brand is who you are and how you present that message. If you’re doing it right, those who take a quick glance and listen should immediately have a sense of what’s going on and of what kind of person (and artist) you are.

Do record labels control artists?

Hugh McIntyre

For the most part, yes. While they may be rooted in a creative industry, record labels are still businesses, and they must make money, so they often try to steer their signed musicians toward the popular styles and sounds of the day. This is why when something becomes big, many top-tier stars rush to find hits of their own in the same vein, and why something completely original may not receive the same attention as other releases.

There have been countless stories throughout the years of artists–even superstars–describing the incredible power record labels held over them. Some acts were forced to record songs they didn’t care about, change lyrics, or promote one tune as a single over another. In some instances, record labels also decide the names of songs, albums, and even pick the art that covers a CD.

The power record labels exert over artists can move beyond simply creative fields as well. According to The Balance, “Depending on the contract structure, record labels also have the ability to set the amount of money their artists earn.” There are also examples of acts who were taken advantage of when it came to revenues, royalties, and more.

Being signed to a major record label may provide the opportunity to become a star, but it is not without some serious possible drawbacks.

Offer Something Unique

Some record labels are interested in creating and marketing copies of what has come before and performed well. For every new pop Singer, Rapper, or rock band that makes it to the top, there are at least a dozen like them who get signed and push out mediocre tunes (though the world doesn’t usually hear about these acts).

Emulating a certain style or blended genre taking the world by storm is a somewhat reliable method to get people to at least give your music a listen, but if it’s not authentic—or put together by committee to be a smash—even the best copies won’t get you very far. If you go down this road, sure, you might be signed, but will it really work out in the end?

Forward-thinking, larger record labels (or the best of the indies) are typically interested in two things: 1) more of the same hits with the potential to take over radio and the charts because the public is already familiar with the sound, and 2) something completely new.

If you want to be signed because of the latter, you have to be really, truly great. Pushing a new kind of artist into the mainstream is extremely difficult, even with a sizable marketing budget and the best connections possible in the business. It’s rare when an artist who is working completely in their own lane and crafting music unlike anything that’s ever been made before tops the charts.

For every success story in the vein of Lorde’s “Royals” or Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” you get thousands of the same kind of pop fodder many of the biggest stars traffic in.

Those two tracks I mentioned worked because they are absolutely perfect for what they are. The chances of recording one of those types of singles is less than one in a million, but if you can find your unique voice and carry it through, while also ensuring what you’re making is catchy and easy to digest, the right company might be interested in working with you.

Expand Your Brand

I’ve already mentioned having a following on social media and a style all your own, and those things come together (along with a number of other factors) to shape what is called your brand. Every artist who has “made it” has a brand, and those who go down in history as especially successful pay close attention to theirs and they spend as much time thinking about it and tending to it as anything else, including their music.

Your brand is who you are and how you present that message. If you’re doing it right, those who take a quick glance and listen should immediately have a sense of what’s going on and of what kind of person (and artist) you are. It needs to be shown in the photos you use in the press, the posts on your social media accounts, and of course, your actual art.

If this isn’t something you’ve ever thought about, spend some time studying some of those who have crafted a sturdy, marketable brand over the years, such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, or Lana Del Rey. You may or may not like their music, but they all are instantly recognizable beyond just their singles, and that is something that’s very powerful…and very valuable.

Think about what is missing out there in the mainstream, either sonically or aesthetically, and then consider if you could fill this role well. Having a strong, well-documented and displayed brand is key to catching the attention of tastemakers and those at the top, so while this all may sound like fluff to you, it might be just the thing you need to get your music heard and promoted to millions around the world.

Is it hard to get signed to a record label?

Hugh McIntyre

Yes. Sorry, but that’s the truth.

Securing a record deal with a major record label is near-impossible these days. There are countless artists and groups looking for the same contract you are, and competition is incredibly fierce. As was mentioned before, these days, the biggest companies are almost exclusively interested in acts with established followings and proven track records. This may sound odd, as those things are supposed to come after signing with a record label, but that’s just how it is these days.

Conversely, there are now more record labels than ever, though they’re not all major players in the music industry. Thanks to advancements in technology, a number of important startups, and changes in pretty much everything about the music industry, there are far more options than in the past. Now, anyone can create a record label, so finding one that might be interested in you is technically more likely than ever…but don’t necessarily expect a lot from these companies. Most don’t have budgets for million dollar videos or huge radio campaigns, but they may still be able to help you get your career off the ground.

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